Ellen Wilkinson was a pioneer left wing working class politician who worked tirelessly on grassroots campaigns like the Jarrow March and went on to be the only female cabinet minister in Attlee’s Labour Government. Writer Caroline Bird deserves high praise not just for her firecracker script but for her research in unearthing a story about yet another significant woman in the UK’s history whose name has been lost.
Ellen Wilkinson, played with raw passion by the superbly cast Bettrys Jones, was a woman who was large in spirit if small in stature, gaining the nickname of The Mighty Atom. She apparently had a reputation for driving on the wrong side of the road, something that could easily stand as a metaphor for her life.
The play opens at a Labour Party conference in 1933 when Ellen shares the platform with a line of moustached men who range from a spivvy fag smoker to a statesman like pipe smoker. Apart from Bettrys Jones who stays in the eponymous role, these and the many roles that follow are expertly taken on by the remaining strong cast. These actors also move props in front of the dark wood panels that serve as a constant backdrop to the changing scenes above which surtitles give times and places as the play proceeds chronologically. Director Wils Wilson does a slick job of controlling these complex comings and goings that are smoothly carried out by this tightly knit ensemble. Kevin Lennon deserves a special mention in his role as Labour politician Herbert Morrison, one of Ellen’s lovers, as does Helen Katamba as her sister, Annie, where family dynamics are played out sensitively between the two very different women.
Camilla Clarke’s contemporary costume designs are pleasingly accurate with Bettrys Jones frequently changing hers on stage, adding to the absence of artifice that again can stand as a metaphor for Ellen herself. Clarke’s depiction of the Jarrow March at the end of Act 1 of this excellent production is both evocative and moving.
Bird has fleshed out a story to gives us a piece of emotionally charged non-didactic, nuanced theatre laced with humour and pathos that throws into focus the passionate life of a woman who travelled to Spain, Germany and Belgium at crucial times, meeting the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway. Living by her father’s maxim of ‘Lose yourself in action lest you wither in despair’, this woman was ahead of her time defying conventions in every aspect of her life, as some women do, no matter the era, and usually paying a price for it. Sadly, watching the events in a life of nearly 100 years ago, there is a sense of plus ça change.
Red Ellenis a Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh co-production that opened in Newcastle. The show runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh from 4th – 21st May before going to York.